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Posts tagged “揮春

FAREWELL UNCLE TIM, Calligrapher of Cat Street (摩羅上街), Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

It was a fine Saturday morning about two weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, the second Chinese New Year since we moved to the Ladder Street neighborhood. We walked down Ladder Street just like any weekday when we go to work. It wasn’t our working day but we walked down specifically looking for an elderly vendor called Yim Keng-tim (嚴鏡添), who had been writing fai chun (揮春) or decorative banners with Chinese lucky phases for decades. Fai chun is usually written in Chinese brush calligraphy, with either black or golden ink on red rice paper. In Sheung Wan, the intersection of Ladder Street and Lascar Row (摩羅上街), commonly known as Cat Street, is a popular spot for fai chun calligraphers to set up their booths around the time of Chinese New Year. Calligrapher Yim Keng-tim, nicknamed Uncle Tim (添叔), was a renowned figure in the Cat Street neighborhood, the largest antique street market in Hong Kong. Probably the earliest fai chun writer who set up his booth since around 1960, for over sixty years Uncle Yim had made a name for himself with his Chinese calligraphy, which other than fai chun, were also available for signage and banners for restaurants, shops and even offices of politicians. Apart from calligraphy, Uncle Tim also sold and repaired eyeglasses from his street stall at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), a small street off Ladder Street that was once teemed with neighborhood lives decades ago. Since the street was dramatically cut short in the 1990’s by modern residential development, shops and stall vendors gradually disappeared. By the time we moved into the neighborhood, only a restaurant and two street stalls remained. Uncle Tim’s Tim Kee Eyeglasses (添記眼鏡) was one of them.

As we walked down the rather filthy steps covered with pigeon droppings to Circular Pathway from Ladder Street, we were hoping to find Uncle Tim at his eyeglasses stall and buy a few fai chun from him. It wasn’t our first time to check out his stall, but just like earlier, his stall was closed and the Circular Pathway dead quiet. Disappointed, we walked over to Cat Street. Most of the antique shops had yet opened their doors. We sat down outside Halfway Coffee, one of our favorite neighborhood coffee shops, for a morning coffee. The sun gradually moved up the sky, while shop vendors arrived at their antique shops one by one. We finished our coffee and decided to checked out Tim Kee Eyeglasses once again. At the junction of Cat and Ladder Street, we chatted with a friendly souvenir stall owner about Uncle Tim, who at the age of 96, would only come to his stall occasionally. Five minutes later, we finally saw Uncle Tim emerged from behind his stall. With his bent spine and grey hair, Uncle Tim looked a little older than the online videos and photographs in newspaper, magazines and blogs that we saw in the past few years. After greetings, we told him that we wanted to buy some fai chun from him. He was delighted to receive us as his first customers of the day, and asked us to write down the phases that we wanted him to write. We helped him to set up his folding table, while he went to his stall to search for red rice paper, paper knife, calligraphy brush, and gold enamel paint. He slowly cut the paper into square and rectangular pieces, stirred the paint thoroughly, and jumped right into calligraphy writing. While his calligraphy might not be as fine as his earlier works, we were touched and grateful to witness Uncle Tim at work doing his favorite Chinese calligraphy. Being persistently to maintain his eyeglasses stall, selling fai chun and promoting the art of Chinese calligraphy continuously for over sixty years was a remarkable effort. At the age of 96, climbing the steps of Ladder Street and Circular Pathway and set up his table all by himself were no easy tasks, and would probably scare off most people. We bought six fai chun from Uncle Tim in total, thanked him and happily took the pieces home.

After that day, we saw him a few more times in the following week or so, either quietly sitting in front of his stall, or up at Ladder Street waiting for potential customers. After Chinese New Year, we never saw him again. Whenever we passed by Circular Pathway going to work, we would always peek down to check out his stall from a distance, and wonder how the old calligrapher was doing. Until one day in early July, while walking down Ladder Street going to work we saw a bunch of paper and boxes piled up against his stall. Then the next day we walked down Circular Pathway to take a closer look. Beyond the pile of paper and boxes we saw a notice on his stall saying the recent death of Uncle Tim at the age of 97. After 60 years selling eyeglasses and calligraphy in the Cat Street neighborhood, Uncle Tim finally called it a day and rest peacefully ever after.

For 60 years, Uncle Tim had been promoting Chinese calligraphy to locals and tourists in the busy Cat Street neighborhood. In the last two decades, he had been interviewed by all sorts of newspapers, magazines and online media. Display of an old newspaper was clipped on the wire fence where he sometimes set up his temporary calligraphy station at the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Uncle Tim was a well known figure in the Ladder Street and Cat Street (Lascar Row) neighborhood. Once a vibrant second hand market many decades ago, Cat Street is now a sleepy tourist attraction and home to Hong Kong largest antique market.
We often visit Halfway Coffee at Cat Street for a morning sip.
Halfway Coffee makes use of the vintage ambience of Cat Street, merging traditional decorative arts with contemporary cafe culture.
We had a sip of morning coffee while waiting for Uncle Tim to show up at his stall.
Uncle Tim’s stall was located at Circular Pathway (弓絃巷), about 30 steps below the junction of Cat Street and Ladder Street.
Circular Pathway had seen better days, before the alleyway was cut short by a large residential development, disconnecting the historical lane from Gough Street (歌賦街) to the east.
When we saw Uncle Tim that morning, the first thing we did was to set up the table for him.
We asked Uncle Tim to write us five fai chun. Uncle Tim looked at the piece of red paper, and figured he should get a bigger piece of paper.
From his stall, he found a big piece of red paper for the work.
We wrote down the phases for him, while it took him a while to look for his rusty paper knife.
Uncle Tim used his paper knife to cut the paper into the right sizes.
Uncle Tim picked out a can of gold enamel paint, stirred it for a few minutes and started with writing the single character “fuk”, meaning “fortune”. The paint was really thick, but he managed to control his brush to start his calligraphy.
Moments later, Uncle Tim completed the first piece of fai chun.
We were delighted to see the 96-year old calligrapher focused on his work.
From interviews on magazines, newspapers and online videos, we can briefly piece together the story of Uncle Tim. According to an online interview, Uncle Tim was born in Hong Kong, and stayed several childhood years in Guangzhou with his uncle, who taught him Chinese calligraphy.
According to a newspaper interview, Uncle Tim loved to hike up The Peak from Central when he was young. Walking up and down the Ladder Street and Circular Pathway could be a challenge for any elderly person, but it didn’t stop the 96-year-old calligrapher.
In his stall, we saw some of his eyeglasses. In newspaper interviews, he mentioned that his eyeglasses business had become scarce in recent years.
The friendly souvenir stall owner told us that Uncle Tim’s calligraphy was not what it used to be due to his age. What we interested in was not the perfect calligraphy, but a chance to pay respect to the old calligrapher, witness him at work closely, and learn more about the man from our neighborhood.
His story was a 60-year effort of promoting Chinese calligraphy at Cat Street.

***

In early July, we learnt about the death of Uncle Tim from the notices at his stall.
Outside his stall, several pieces of calligraphy were pin up to remind people the memory of Uncle Tim.
The signage Tim Kee Eyeglasses has became remnants from a bygone era.
A business card of Uncle Tim stood out from the pile of paper and boxes. Probably someone was clearing out the stall after Uncle Tim passed away.

LADDER STREETS PART 3: A NOSTALGIC JOURNEY, Tai Ping Shan (太平山), Hong Kong

Construction began in 1841, the same year of founding the city, Ladder Street is one of the oldest streets in Hong Kong. [Near the intersection of Ladder Street and Bridges Street in 1927. Various online sources.]

Out of the many ladder streets in Central and Sheung Wan (中上環), the roughly 350m Ladder Street (樓梯街) in Tai Ping Shan is the longest and one of the oldest. While “ladder street” is a general term for all pedestrian stair streets in Hong Kong, “Ladder Street” is also the name of a specific 316-steps stair street running from Caine Road (堅道) in the Mid Levels (半山) down to Queen’s Street Central (皇后大道中) in Sheung Wan. On its way, Ladder Street intersects with Bridges Street (必列者士街) and Hollywood Road (荷李活道), and several smaller pedestrian lanes. It also passes by a number of historical buildings and tourist attractions, including the Museum of Medical Sciences (香港醫學博物館), Chinese YMCA (中華基督教青年會), Man Mo Temple (文武廟) and Upper Lascar Row Antique Street Market / Cat Street Market (摩羅上街). Construction began in 1841 in the same year when the city was founded, Ladder Street is an iconic urban artefact of Hong Kong.

For many, Ladder Street is an iconic backdrop that represents a bygone Hong Kong. Throughout the years, Ladder Street has featured in uncounted films, TV shows (often involves chasing scenes), advertisements, photographs, etc. For foreigners, Ladder Street may be best known as one of the main filming locations of The World of Suzie Wong, a 1960 American/ British movie that tells the story of a American painter Robert Lomax (William Holden) falling in love with a Hong Kong prostitute Mei Ling (Nancy Kwan). For filming, the section of Ladder Street around Hollywood Road was converted into the set of Nam Kok Hotel, a fictional hotel where the two main protagonists stay hang around. The streetscapes of Ladder Street and Hollywood Road in the movie were “enriched” with extra street vendors, Chinese signage, pulled rickshaws, and lots and lots of people.

Walking down the Ladder Street to Sheung Wan Station every morning is a pleasant start to our daily routine. Away from rush hour traffic, Ladder Street offers us a moment of relaxing air before diving ourselves into the bustling dynamics of the city. Singing birds, shadows of swaying trees, rustic balustrades, old brick walls, incense smoke from Man Mo Temple, and scenes of vendors setting up their antique market stalls, every little detail of Ladder Street come together in a poetic picture. In the past two decades, many low rise tenement buildings in the area have been torn down for new apartment towers. Many vendors have retired, and old shops being replaced by new ones. No matter how much has changed, the intimate and tranquil scenery of Ladder Street remains as an icon of an old Hong Kong. Late poet Yesi (也斯), Leung Ping Kwan, in his 1990 poem Ladder Street, imagines himself on a pair of wooden clogs wandering in Ladder Street like a flaneur, mourning for the loss of the old days and yearning for a re-connection to bygone voices. Who knows, we probably would share a similar sense of loss in a few years’ time.

Ladder Street contains 316 steps running from Queen’s Road Central to Caine Road. [Sectional Diagram of Ladder Street, steps and landings are indicative only]
A small street eatery (popular with construction workers in the area) marks the top entrance of Ladder Street. [Junction of Caine Road and Ladder Street]
Decades ago, Victoria Harbour was clearly visible from the upper sections of Ladder Street. [Ladder Street between Caine Road and Caine Lane, 1954. Various online sources.]
Viewing from the same spot today, the sea is completely hidden by layers of modern buildings. [Junction of Caine Road and Ladder Street]
At night, a moody tone of yellow blankets much of the Ladder Street. [Junction of Caine Lane and Ladder Street]
The curved retaining wall between U Lam Terrace and Rosario Street remains as one of the few things that we can pick out in historical photos. [Junction of Rosario Street and Ladder Street]
Branching off from Ladder Street to Tank Lane, U Lam Terrace, a residential lane with only five apartment blocks, exemplifies a middle upper Chinese neighbourhood in the 19th century. [Junction of Tank Lane, U Lam Terrace and Rosario Street]
For 10 days in March each year, blossoms of tabebuia chrysantha would completely transform the scenery of the terrace. Native to South America, the deciduous tree was introduced to Hong Kong for aesthetic reasons. [U Lam Terrace]
Further down from U Lam Terrace is Bridges Street. In 1883, American missionary Rev. Dr. Charles Robert Hager arrived at Bridges Street in Tai Ping Shan and embarked on the Hong Kong Mission. In 1898, he bought the land at Ladder Street and Bridges Street and established the China Congregational Church. Charles Robert Hager is well known for baptizing Dr. Sun Yatsen in 1884. [Junction of Bridges Street and Ladder Street]
Linking the artsy Tai Ping Shan Street to the west and SOHO to the east, the 300m Bridges Street is frequented by tourists to check out the historical buildings in the area. [Outside Island Christian Academy on Bridges Street]
Completed in 1918, Chinese YMCA at Bridges Street was designed by American architect Harry Hussey in an attempt to integrate the style of the Chicago school with traditional Chinese features. As a result, red bricks, concrete and green glazed roof tiles were used. [Junction of Bridges Street and Ladder Street]
Currently a community centre, the building houses Hong Kong’s first indoor swimming pool and the last surviving running track made from wood. [Junction of Bridges Street and Tank Lane]
Constructed with the most modern facilities at its time, YMCA building has witnessed a century of changes in Hong Kong. Being a community hub for the locals ever since completion, Famous Chinese writer Lu Hsun once hosted a lecture at the YMCA building’s auditorium in 1927. [The cornerstone of the 1st Hong Kong YMCA was laid, 1917. University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives.]
Further down from Bridges Street, the upper section of Ladder Street ends at Man Mo Temple (文武廟), where Square Street makes a sharp turn out to Hollywood Road. This historic street junction featured frequently in films, including American/ British movie The World of Suzie Wong. [Junction of Square Street and Hollywood Road]
A century ago, the very same spot at the junction of Square Street and Ladder Street was home to street vendors. Looking upwards, the profile of Victoria Peak could still be seen. Today, the hill is totally hidden behind tall apartments. [Ladder Street as viewed from Square Street near Hollywood Road, with the side wall of Man Mo Temple on the left, 1920, copyright expired]
Situated at the junction of Square Street, Ladder Street and Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple (文武廟) is one of the oldest temples in the city. Based on inscriptions on a brass bell, the temple was presumably built in 1847. [Man Mo Temple from corner of Hollywood Road and Ladder Street]
Not much has changed for Man Mo Temple in the past 150 years. But the urban context surrounding the temple has dramatically evolved. [The Joss House temple ornamented with lions and Chinese dragons, by William Pryor. Floyd, 1873. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)]
Yue Po Chai Curios Store (裕寶齋) occupies the corner of Hollywood Road and Square Street, where the filming spot of the fictional Nam Kok Hotel in The World of Suzie Wong was once located. Today, the circular shop entrance is a popular spot for Instagram selfies. [Corner of Hollywood Road and Square Street]
Another landing or two down the Ladder Street from Hollywood Road would get us to Upper Lascar Row (摩羅上街) and Circular Pathway (弓絃巷). Upper Lascar Row is a major antique market street in Hong Kong. East Indian sailors known as Lascar in the colonial era once lived in the street during the 19th century. As the Indians moved to other areas in the city, the small street was transformed into a shopping street for antiques and curios merchandises in the 1920’s. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Ladder Street]
In the old days, all kinds of merchandise could be found at Upper Lascar Row. Merchandise from illegal origins were referred as “mouse goods”. Shoppers who came seeking for these goods were nicknamed “cats”. Thus Upper Lascar Row was also called Cat Street by Westerners. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Tank Lane]
Hidden in the antique shops of Upper Lascar Row is June Woonamy, a bespoke tailor shop specialized in making “sleekly vintage” suits. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row and Luk Ku Road]
In the midst of old shops, Halfway Coffee has emerged as an urban magnet attracting the younger generation coming into the antique market. [Halfway Coffee’s exterior seating area in Upper Lascar Row]
Before the shops open for business, Upper Lascar Row is a peaceful venue for morning stroll. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row and Tank Lane]
The Ladder Street landing cthat branches off to Upper Lascar Row and Circular Pathway is a popular spot to get “fai chun” (揮春), traditional calligraphy decorations used during Chinese New Year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
The landing of Ladder Street that branches off to Upper Lascar Row and Circular Pathway is a popular spot to get “fai chun” (揮春), traditional calligraphy decorations used during Chinese New Year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
As Chinese New Year is approaching, four temporary “fai chun” (揮春) booths were being set up at Ladder Street. These booths would usually last for about two weeks each year. [Junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
All of the fai chun writers are elderly, with the oldest being almost 96. [Near junction of Upper Lascar Row, Circular Pathway and Ladder Street]
After 316 steps, the Ladder Street reaches Queen’s Road Central, the first main street in Hong Kong. [Junction of Queen’s Road Central and Ladder Street]